Monday, August 22, 2011

Pseudo-Science and the Subversion of Science

Magical thinking is wonderful. It lets me be all powerful, it lets me be the centre of the universe, it lets me find meanings behind the appearances. Unfortunately it isn't science. But it is very popular. Not just religious people but narcissist and the lazy minded enjoy developing their "understanding" of the universe via magical thinking.

Here a bit from a post by Carl Zimmer on his Discover Magazine blog talking about viruses and how magical thinking has gone from simply ignoring the science to trying to control the science:
A few months ago I was asked to give a couple talks to the skeptic community. Since I had just published a book about viruses, I decided to talk about the way myths so often crop up around them, and how a properly skeptical person should think about viruses. Over the centuries, viruses have been encircled by urban legends, superstitions, and conspiracy theories. The name “influenza” dates back to a time when European physicians believed the flu was due to the influence of the stars. More recently, HIV has been subject to all sorts of myths, from stories that it was created by the CIA to claims that it is not the cause of AIDS. The autism-vaccine controversy has been fueled in part by myths about viruses–namely, that the risk from vaccines is far greater than the risk from viruses like measles.

In my talks, I speculated that the very nature of viruses makes it easy for people to grab onto these kinds of explanations, and to reject scientific evidence that might argue against them. Viruses are the smallest living things on Earth, and yet they can have worldwide effects. They may only contain a few genes, yet they can hold their own against all of modern medicine. And the reality of viruses can seem downright unbelievable. Rabbits with horns may sound like yet another myth–but there’s some truth at the core of it. So it may be psychologically easy to endow viruses with extraordinary powers, or to deny them any power at all.

At the end of my talk, I told my audiences that we might be at the beginning of another one of these viral episodes. I described how a virus called XMRV had been recently linked to chronic fatigue, a debilitating condition that may affect 60 million people worldwide. Since the initial report, there had been some attempts to replicate the link, but they had failed. ...

... And today in the Guardian, Robin McKie reports that XMRV proponents are now issuing death threats to scientists who have done this research.

The scientists he talks to have some pretty startling things to say. A protestor shows up at a talk by a scientist, armed with a knife. A scientist backs out of a collaboration for fear of being shot.

I should say I take this article with a grain of salt. McKie writes that “according to the police, the militants are now considered to be as dangerous and uncompromising as animal rights extremists.” But the catalog of harassment he presents made up mainly of obnoxious emails. No one’s bombed a lab. And even if there are some people who are sending XMRV-related death threats, they could well just be a handful of people, rather than any sort of broad movement. In other words, I really hope that my prediction turns out to be wrong.
Go read the original article to get the embedded links and additional text.

Science is a great accomplishment of the modern era of civilization. It is the equivalent of the Egyptians building pyramids and of the Middle Age western Europeans building cathedrals. It is even more important because it provides real beneficial results. But like earlier cultural artifacts, it can disappear. The magical thinking crazies can bring it all to an end like the pyramids and cathedrals.

I worry a lot about the US. They have more religious nuts and extremist per square mile than any other country. I expect if science is to be snuffed out, it will first occur there.

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